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Saving rivers, saving lives

Indigenous Peoples
Malaysia
People from the various villages in Baram  district demonstrate against the proposed dam. SAMBAN TUGANG
People from the various villages in Baram district demonstrate against the proposed dam. Credit: Samban Tugang 

‘Most of our resources have been taken away; the money from our land and rivers goes to the mainland or overseas,’ says Peter Kallang, a lifelong campaigner for the people of Sarawak, who is fighting to bring sustainable, renewable energy to local communities instead of the massively destructive mega dams pushed by the government.

The Malaysian state of Sarawak on the northern coast of Borneo is home to one of the world’s most critically endangered and biodiverse rainforests. ‘Sarawak is as big as England with lots of forests and rivers. Indigenous people have lived there for hundreds of years.’

Indigenous people in Sarawak speak 30 languages and know everything about the forest. When they are forced to move to the big cities, they lose their languages and culture – they get diluted

But Sarawak’s economy lags behind the rest of Malaysia and many villages lack basic amenities. ‘We have customary rights to our lands, but the government has given them to timber tycoons, palm-oil plantations and mining companies,’ says Kallang, 69, who is a member of the Kenyah indigenous community. He was the 2019 winner of the Seacology prize, awarded annually to a person who has shown exceptional achievement in preserving island environment and culture.

More than logging and mining, the biggest threat to Sarawak comes from the government’s plan to tap the hydro potential of its numerous rivers to power the state’s rapid industrial development. The ambitious project, called SCORE, (the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy) comprises 12 mega-dams, whose energy output would hugely surpass local demand, in an attempt to attract energy-intensive industries, such as aluminium smelters.

The project is dramatically changing landscapes and lives, and indigenous people have little confidence they’ll benefit from it. In 2011, without properly consulting affected populations, the Bakun dam was built, flooding old forest ecosystems and displacing 10,000 indigenous people, drowning their villages and farms.

The next in line, the Baram dam, would submerge an additional 400 square kilometres of rainforest and 25 villages, displacing another 20,000 people. It would also drive rare species to extinction and emit great quantities of greenhouse gases because vegetation decomposes at the bottom of the reservoirs and produces methane. ‘We were too late for Bakun, but we could fight the Baram dam,’ says Kallang, who was born and raised in a village in Baram district. So eight local NGOs joined forces to form Save Rivers and asked Kallang to lead the coalition.

‘As we were eight NGOs, we managed to cover a lot of ground. We visited all the 25 affected villages in Baram and explained the impact of the dam.’ They brought along people whose villages had been flooded by the Bakun dam.

‘They were subsistence farmers. When they were displaced, they were promised free housing, water and electricity and compensation for their land. But they were given sandy, rocky plots too small to farm, they didn’t get compensation and they even had to pay for their utilities,’ says Kallang.

‘Indigenous people in Sarawak speak 30 languages and know everything about the forest. When they are forced to move to the big cities, they lose their languages and culture – they get diluted.’

Ironically, Kallang worked as an engineer for Shell in the past. ‘There were not many jobs for an engineer in those days,’ he says with a sheepish smile. ‘But I was the president of the workers’ union. I was already fighting.’ When I ask if his work with Shell gave him any insights, he replies: ‘At least at Shell, if you wanted to complain about something, you could, but you cannot say anything against the government.’

Yet, in defiance of the authoritarian government, Save Rivers galvanized protests and demonstrations, including river flotillas in towns and remote rural areas. The largest was a two-year blockade, halting the dam’s construction.

At the same time, Kallang raised awareness and built coalitions internationally, confronting investor audiences in Australia and Norway. ‘We found links with a firm owned by the Tasmanian government, so we flew to Australia where we connected with the Green party there and visited parliaments in Sydney, Melbourne and Tasmania. Our voices were heard.’

Save Rivers also connected with experts in renewable energy at the University of California, Berkeley, who showed that there are energy alternatives to mega dams, such as micro-hydro, solar and wind power.

These alternatives could end energy poverty in Sarawak without destroying the forests and people, and, importantly, could be owned by local communities, thus creating and distributing wealth more equitably.

Save Rivers presented these findings to the government in 2016, along with 10,000 signatures against the Baram dam. After five years of protests, the government agreed to cancel the Baram dam and SCORE.

Kallang and Save Rivers are now focusing on renewable energy for Sarawak, partnering with pioneers in sustainable, alternative energy systems. The organization has already helped villagers build two micro dams and taught them how to maintain them, so they could own them. These projects also help preserve Sarawak’s precious forests, because logging would damage the watersheds necessary for micro-hydro systems to work.

Last year, Save Rivers hosted Sarawak’s first community-based conference on electricity generation. There were more than 300 participants, including representatives from both national and state politics (together for the first time) and over 50 community leaders from across the state.

But Kallang now fears that the government might revive the mega-dam plan as natural resources, such as gas, oil, timber and primary forests, are rapidly dwindling.

‘We need to keep showing the destruction and injustice brought by mega dams and demonstrating the value of sustainable community-based renewable energy projects,’ he stresses. ‘This is not just Sarawak’s problem, it is a national problem and an international one because mega dams here will drown one of the most biodiverse parts of the world.’

New Internationalist issue 524 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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